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It saved my back – and my legs. As I got older, my leg muscles tightened and contracted, and began to pull on the muscles that surround my lower back. Which exerted serious pressure on my spine and caused serious pain. Serious enough that I couldn’t stand or walk fully upright on some days.

A few days after I began to stretch (with the supervision of a physical therapist), I was relieved of all but the slightest pain. A few weeks later, I had zero pain – and my back and legs felt better, looser and stronger than they had in decades. Eight pain-free years later, they still do.

I always start my stretching with Knees-to-Chest, which I’ll show you in the video. I’ll show you a new exercise each week for the next eight. Together, they make up a 20- to 30-minute routine that feels great while you do it and throughout the day and night. This’ll stretch you, strengthen you – improve your balance and flexibility.

If you’ve got a “back problem”, my solution may not be yours. I stretched my way out of a muscle problem before it caused a structural spinal problem. I went to my doctor; he referred me to a physical therapist. If you have a real problem, see a doctor. If you want to avoid one, try stretching.

I’d been a runner for decades: a few miles every day when I was younger; three or four days a week more recently. It’s great aerobic exercise, but you really need to stretch a little beforehand — and a lot immediately afterward. I didn’t. Eventually, the muscle shortening that comes with age combined with the muscle tightening that comes with running – and I had a tough time walking around the block.

Cost-Benefit Analysis
Now I stretch and feel no pain — and my restored leg muscles run faster and farther with ease. So I burn more calories, maintain a higher level of cardio fitness and stamina as well as muscle strength. What does it cost?

Eight years ago, it cost six trips to a physical therapist. Here in Manhattan, that was $75 per session. Now it costs 20 minutes of my time in the morning and another 20 in the evening. Yeah, that’s 40 minutes each day — but it provides 24 pain-free hours every day. No medication, no surgery, no appointments.

“Knees-to-Chest” is the first in a sequence of eight exercises I do. If you haven’t already clicked “play”, scroll back up and watch the short video. If you try it yourself, pay particular attention to this piece of advice: only stretch as far as you’re comfortable. Don’t inflict pain or injure yourself. You’ll begin to restore flexibility in a few days – and you’ll take it a little farther when you do. Stay loose.

Stretch everything
Spinal Twist
Shoulder Bridges
Ab Crunches
Spinal Balance
Upper Back

It’s Always Something
For the last decade or so, exercise “experts” and personal trainers have been promoting the notion that you could relieve back pain by strengthening your deep abdominal muscles. “Pull in your bellybutton” and “flatten your back” are heard in gyms throughout the land, where “core” has come to be synonymous with “abs”.

Now, a study shows that this hyper attention to abs may result in misaligning your spine by working it from the abs side only. This study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (July 2008) comes out on the side of strengthening all the major muscle groups that surround the spine.

Glad my physical therapist included “spinal balance” along with the “modified crunches” in my stretching/strengthening routine.

Don’t Just Sit There!
Even if you exercise for an hour a day, you’re still awake for another 15 hours. If you spend too many of them sitting, you’ll have significantly higher risk of “cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome risk factors, and obesity … because any type of brief, yet frequent, muscular contraction throughout the day may be necessary to short-circuit unhealthy molecular signals [from prolonged sitting] causing metabolic diseases.” American Diabetes Association, “Role of Low Energy Expenditure and Sitting in Obesity”. So get up, or down, and stretch whenever you’ve got a minute – just for the muscle flexing.

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